Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 41/2020 – Week of October 12-18

Greetings from The 88 Project! We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of October 12-18. Pham Doan Trang now has lawyers to represent her, though she is not permitted to meet with them. Two political prisoners are currently on hunger strikes– Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and Le Dinh Luong. In international advocacy, US representatives have spoken out against the Dong Tam trial and Vietnamese lawyers have called for the repeal of Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code, which broadly criminalizes activities deemed to be “anti-state.” In the news and analysis section, read about Japan-Vietnam defense relations and a new government decree aiming to further suppress freedom of publication in Vietnam with increased administrative punishments. Take action for Pham Doan Trang– we’ve compiled a list of actions you can take for her on our website.


Political Prisoners 

Pham Doan Trang’s family has retained attorney Dang Dinh Manh to represent her. Manh says the authorities have issued a limit on how many lawyers are allowed to work on this case, and that they cannot have access to the defendant until after the authorities have completed their investigation because this is “a matter of national security.” Besides Manh, the other attorneys are Nguyen Van Mieng, Trinh Vinh Phuc, Luan Le, Nguyen Ha Luan, and Ngo Anh Tuan. Most of these lawyers also worked on the Dong Tam trial, something that Trang wrote extensively about prior to her arrest. Trang was arrested just hours after the US-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue on October 6.

On October 8, political prisoner Tran Huynh Duy Thuc told his family that he had begun a hunger strike for the last three days to demand that the High Court review his request to have his sentence reduced based on changes in the Penal Code of 2015. His brother, Tran Huynh Duy Tam, says the issue is that Thuc was charged with “preparing to commit a crime,” which in the new Penal Code only carries a maximum sentence of five years. Instead, his brother was sentenced to 16 years, and is currently in his 11th year behind bars. The family is working to have this sentence repealed so that Thuc can be freed according to the law.

Political prisoner Le Dinh Luong‘s family visited him on October 4, and Luong told them that he would go on a hunger strike starting on October 11. His family is very concerned about his health. Luong said he hasn’t been allowed to read his Bible. The prisoners are also suffering from polluted air and unsanitary water. Therefore, he decided to go on a hunger strike to demand basic rights for himself and other prisoners. An environmental and democracy activist, Luong was arrested on July 24, 2017, and later sentenced to 20 years in prison. Luong is currently at Ba Sao Prison Camp in the northern Ha Nam Province.

This week, we remember the birthdays and arrest and trial anniversaries of the following political prisoners:

  • Engineer and activist Nguyen Ngoc Anh, birthday October 12, serving six years in prison

  • Anti-corruption protester Dang Thi Hue (pictured) and driver Bui Manh Tien, arrested October 16, 2019, and sentenced to one year in prison each

  • Catholic female activist Tran Thi Xuan, arrested October 17, 2017, and sentenced to nine years in prison

  • Facebooker and protester Le Van Phuong, arrested October 17, 2018, and sentenced to seven years in prison

  • Protesters and factory workers (pictured above from left to right) Vo Van TruLe Trong Nghia, and Pham Thi Thu Thuy, tried October 17, 2018, and sentenced to between two years and three months and three years and three months in prison each

  • Anti-corruption female activist Nguyen Thi Hue, tried October 17, 2019, and sentenced to two years and six months in prison
Community at Risk

A months-long investigation by Die Zeit and Bayerischer Rundfunk of Germany has revealed that the hacker group known as APT32, suspected of being illegal but supported by the government of Vietnam, has stepped up attacks against the Vietnamese diaspora community in Germany. Its main targets appear to be those who support human rights for Vietnam, especially journalists who write articles unfavorable to Hanoi. APT32 has also been known by other names, such as Ocean Lotus, APT-C-00, SeaLotus, and OceanBuffalo. In April of this year, cybersecurity company FireEye reported that APT32 hacked into China’s Office of Emergency Management and the Wuhan municipal government to get information on Covid-19.

After a lengthy investigation, the US Trademark Office finally rejected the application by the Cao Dai Buddhist Sect 1997, a Vietnamese state-run quasi-religious entity operating in the US, for a trademark it appropriated from the original Cao Dai denomination, which has been prohibited since the Communist takeover, and whose members have often been harassed and/or imprisoned. The office of Sect 1997 in the US has had to shut down after its leader was sued. Its cyber propaganda team has also gone silent for the past six months according to Boat People SOS, the organization that initiated the lawsuit.

International Advocacy 

A group of Vietnamese lawyers living abroad have written an open letter addressed to the Politburo and Parliament of Vietnam requesting the abolition of Article 117 of the Penal Code (“making, storing, spreading, or propagating information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State”), which criminalizes “anti-state” activities broadly. They claim that the article is unconstitutional, that its language is too vague and has been wrongly used to penalize legitimate grievances and suppress free speech. They suggest the article be repealed and replaced with something that is more in line with international norms and which only criminalizes acts that promote violence or terrorism.

The Dong Tam defendants at trial, September 8, 2020. Source: State media via RFA.

Fifteen US representatives have written a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing their concerns about the Dong Tam land dispute and the trial of 29 villagers. The letter points out irregularities during the trial and calls the resulting sentences inhumane, with the intent to destroy whole generations. It urges the United States to include this incident in future bilateral talks with Vietnam and to demand a full investigation on what actually took place.

Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Nang Tinh

A group of Vietnamese in Tokyo protested in front of the residence of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of his visit to Vietnam on October 18-20. They carried pictures of political prisoners such as Trinh Ba PhuongTran Huynh Duy ThucPham Doan TrangLe Dinh Luong, and Nguyen Nang Tinh. The group also went on a 24-hour hunger strike to call attention to the government’s continued crackdown on peaceful dissent and violations of freedom of speech.


The Jailed Activist Left a Letter Behind. The Message: Keep Fighting.Richard C. Paddock, The New York Times, October 14, 2020: “Ms. Pham is one of the most prominent critics to have been arrested in recent years by Vietnam’s Communist regime, which has long made a practice of harassing, beating and imprisoning outspoken activists. The widespread use of smartphones and the internet in Vietnam has meant that daring activists and journalists like Ms. Pham can independently publish stories in which they uncover corruption or expose malfeasance. But that also puts a huge target on their backs.”

Vietnam Seeks to Further Limit Press, An Hai, Voice of America, October 14, 2020: “Under the latest decree, signed Oct. 7 by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, anyone sharing information that authorities deem harmful but not serious enough for a criminal penalty could face steeper fines and a longer, 12-month suspension. For example, the penalty for ‘posting or disseminating information unsuitable for the interests of the nation and people’ carries an administrative fine of up to 200 million Vietnamese dong (U.S. $8,600).”

“Law of the Jungle” for Pham Doan Trang, Y Chan, The Vietnamese, October 16, 2020: “But what is no less crucial is that along the same journey, we have also experienced a depiction of Vietnamese law, a legal system that is used by the state as ‘joss paper’ to be burnt in traditional ritual and sanctimonious duties, which in essence is completely meaningless. Pham Doan Trang has unwittingly somehow become the main character in a tragic story that unveils, through her blood and tears, the nature of that so-called legal system. I have uncovered that brief personal struggle of hers and found three markers that could have predicted many recent events.”

Vietnam Wrestles to Install New Leadership, David Brown, Asia Sentinel, October 16, 2020: “The aforementioned blogger, a retired senior official, reported on October 3 that ‘as the end of Trong’s term approaches, his power has ebbed along with his health. His stroke has left him wobbly and mumbling.’ It’s looking more and more, said the blogger, like a reprise of the epic battle before the 12th Congress between Trong and his would-be successor, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Or maybe not quite so epic. This time the battle is unlikely to spill into the public domain, and it is strongly rumored that in place of Trong’s man Tran Quoc Vuong, incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (above) already commands the support of most Central Committee members.”

With eye on China, Japan’s Suga seeks tighter ties with Vietnam, Indonesia, Linda Sieg, Reuters, October 15, 2020: “Beefing up defence cooperation will be a ‘key point’ of Suga’s trip to Vietnam following last week’s port call of three Japanese vessels at the country’s Cam Ranh naval base, said Ha Hoang Hop of the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. China claims swathes of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone as well as the Paracel and Spratly Islands while Indonesia has been angered by Chinese coast guard intrusions into its exclusive economic zone off its Natuna Islands. Japan plans to sign an agreement with Vietnam to allow it to export defence equipment and technology to the country, the Nikkei newspaper reported this week.”


We have added a post to the “Take Action” section of our website where you can find relevant actions in support of Pham Doan Trang. We will update the post as more actions become available.
© 2020 The 88 Project